Lean on Pete
Edwin Arnaudin: Well, that was brutal. I’d heard that Lean on Pete is different from the average horse movie and that it specializes in sadness, but I wasn’t prepared for the extent of emotional devastation it delivers. Do you also feel like you just got sent to the glue factory?
Bruce Steele: I was quite moved but not quite devastated, and I was fine with that. For all the downbeat twists, it’s also remarkable for the number of near-misses in the life of teenager Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer). As the son of good-for-nothing dad Ray (Travis Fimmel), who has just plopped Charley down in a barely furnished wreck of a rental house in Portland, Oregon, Charley exerts unusual fortitude in fending for himself. I was struck by writer-director Andrew Haigh’s immersive but unsentimental depiction of poverty, so little seen in most movies unless dressed up with drugs, crime, physical abuse or precious tots with dirty faces.
Edwin: The blunt realism of Charley’s situation is key to how jarring the film proved for me. He’s a high schooler on summer vacation with next to no safety net and support system. When that minimal security dissolves, he responds according to his inherited “no begging” policy and does what he can to survive, often with consequences that made me wonder how he found the will to continue. I was constantly thinking how I would react in those situations, which I consider a strength of the film.
Bruce: I like it more the more I think about it. It seems so casual and ambling, but it’s all part a meticulous rendering of exactly that challenge you’re talking about: How can Charley survive? His first step to taking control of his life is working for grumpy old horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi) because he needs money for food. Del’s aging racehorse Lean on Pete gives Charley a reason to hope, gives the movie its title and starts the plot loping along, gradually building to a sustained gallop. And it doesn’t stay on the track you might expect, if you forgive the easy metaphor.
Edwin: Nay, it does not! Grimy and — from everyone but Charley’s perspective — hopeless as the horse-racing act may be, it’s by far the film’s most entertaining stretch. Buscemi’s Del is a foul-mouthed delight and the addition of kindly, no-nonsense jockey Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny) gives Charley his first glimmer of kindness outside of an early scene where his dad’s coworker fling (Amy Seimetz, Alien: Covenant) cooks him breakfast. But both Del and Bonnie warn Charley not to become attached to Pete, advice he tragically ignores. Did the teen’s naiveté, frequent knucklehead decision-making and refusal to seek help irritate you a little (or a lot)?
Bruce: Charley didn’t irritate me at all. For me, the film and the character successfully walked that delicate line between innocence and corruption that is Charley’s path — as is revealed by a shocking scene late in the film that features another indie favorite, Steve Zahn. Charley seems instinctively smart, not articulately clever, and he’s contrasted in one poignant moment with a fellow teen who tells him she’s trapped in her miserable life simply because she has nowhere else to go. Charley never stops believing in somewhere else, even at his lowest moments. I like that Haigh gives him a lot of space — the director favors long shots and framing doors and windows — as if to keep sentimentality to a minimum.
Edwin: I don’t consider consistently squirming out of and running from conflicts to equate intelligence (beyond base-level street wisdom, which we see can only take someone so far), so I think Charley is more lucky than smart. I’m only minimally sympathetic of his distrust of social services that could provide him the stability he’s barely known, especially when his Golden Ticket plan for a home seems like such a long shot. But I agree that it’s a great-looking film and well-acted all around. I have no doubt that Haigh achieved precisely the film he wanted to make — I just have no desire to see it again.
Bruce: I'm looking forward to seeing it again. I'll admit that "smart" may be the wrong word for Charley, but his instincts serve him well — and, yes, he needs a considerable dose of good luck and suffers several spates of terrible luck along the way. A second viewing will give me a better idea how the movie's many disparate elements fit together and a chance to see its lovely images on the big screen, where they belong. I also want another look at Plummer's performance. My own instinct is that he's a talent to watch, with depths yet to be fully revealed. But time will tell. Meanwhile, I highly recommend Lean On Pete and give it an A-minus.
Edwin: It’s my hope that, with the suspense of Charley’s and Pete’s fates now known, I’ll be able to push the bulk of the sadness aside and focus on the film’s technical assets, many of which you mentioned. Still, it’s such a downer that I’ve already warned my equine-loving mother to steer clear of it and give Seabiscuit and The Black Stallion another look instead. I’m not expecting an upbeat conversation May 7 after our 7 p.m. Asheville Movie Guys screening at the Fine Arts Theatre, but as always I’ll be curious what the audience thinks about the film. For now, the best I can give it is a tepid B.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Starts May 4 at the Fine Arts Theatre